Academic Language vs. Colloquial Language

In what ways have you fulfilled the assignment requirements as they relate to audience, appropriate persona/tone, and rhetorical stance? Why is this word choice/diction inappropriate (conversational) for your audience? What might be more appropriate?

For students and teachers alike, most writing occurs in non-academic settings—notes, e-mails, Facebook posts, blogs, shopping lists, etc. In these writing settings, it is perfectly fine to “write as you speak,” using a conversational tone and slang terms. However, when you enter the classroom (and the professional workspace), writing expectations change. These changes in expectation and acceptability occur because the topic or subject of academic writing is more complex than what we write about in our day-to-day writing settings—not because scholars and professionals say so or because they want to sound “snobby” or superior. Also, there is a shift in audience and level of audience interaction. Basically, college-level and professional writing require clarity both in grammar and word choice so that complex ideas can be easily understood by the reader.

Grammatical differences in writing and speaking

Using conversational language and an informal tone—or, “writing as we speak” —in academic writing can be problematic because it can lead to unclear communication between the writer and the reader. In conversations, we often speak in sentence fragments because we are reacting to the other person’s dialogue. For example, when someone asks “How was your day?” we might answer, “Good.” However, “good” is not a complete sentence, because it has neither a noun (subject) nor a verb. What we really mean to say is, “My day was good,” but because the question implies the subject (my day) and verb (was), our answer can still make sense without repeating these words back to the speaker. However, in writing, the reader cannot necessarily infer the missing subjects and verbs insinuated by the writer. In order for a writer’s ideas to be understood, he or she must include a subject and verb in each sentence and not assume that a reader will infer the correct meaning without these words.

We also tend to use run-ons frequently in our conversations, but they usually go unnoticed.

For example, a friend was explaining to me a trip she took to Disney World in which she used several run-ons:

We took the kids to see “The Country Bear” show and on the “It’s a Small World” ride, which Cole absolutely loved and couldn’t stop singing the song the rest of the day, and then we took them on “The Haunted House” ride which was a huge mistake because Noah started screaming and yelling and Cole started crying while we were strapped in the moving seats so we couldn’t get off and now the past few nights he’s been having nightmares about the ghost who follows you home.

Run-ons are problematic because they create confusion. We can, to some degree, follow the story about my friend’s trip to Disney World in this really long run-on sentence, but some of the details are muddled: Which song was Cole singing? Who is having nightmares—Noah or Cole? What is “the ghost who follows you home”? When we have conversations, we don’t notice run-ons, and if a detail isn’t clearly communicated, the listener has the opportunity to ask for clarification. However, someone who is reading a text message cannot simply ask for clarification from the author. Many of us have visited Disney World, so we may be able to piece together what my friend meant, but it would be very difficult to understand a story about a foreign country we had never visited if it had been recounted in that way.

Communicating clearly using academic language and word choice

Clarity is especially important in academic and professional writing because in these settings we usually are asked to write about more complex subjects that may be unfamiliar to the reader. When my students adopt the method of “write as you speak,” their papers usually become confusing and their explanations are difficult to follow because of both grammatical errors and word choice. Correcting grammatical errors that occur in speech is a bit easier than identifying problematic language. The rules of grammar are much more concrete than rules about word choice, which are virtually non-existent. So, if there is no official guide to choosing acceptable words, how do we know when and what colloquial terms are unacceptable?

One way to decide what word to use is to think about words in terms of audience. The issue with colloquial diction is that it is not inclusive of all audiences. Certain terms and words are only familiar to specific generations or groups.

For example, my roommate used to play an online game called “World of Warcraft.” One day we were playing tennis together, and after hitting the game-winning shot, she exclaimed, “I totally pwned you!” I later found out that pwn is a verb used by people in the gaming community that means “to dominate, conquer, or gain ownership of.” Because I had never played World of Warcraft, the meaning of my friend’s celebratory exclamation was lost to me. A barrier in communication also occurs between generations, especially now that technology has influenced us to use abbreviations and create terms such as LOL in order to save time. I can assure you that if my grandmother were to read some of my friends’ Facebook posts, she would think that they were speaking a foreign language. My grandmother, then, is not considered a member of the intended audience of my friends’ Facebook posts.

Obviously, we can eliminate Web and text language from our academic writing. However, there are several other colloquial terms that are more well-known but are still questionable. So how do we know what terms are unacceptable and why? Keeping in mind that in academic writing we want to be as clear and direct as possible, we can decide against using several of these terms by analyzing if their meaning would be clearly understood by audiences of all groups and generations.

For example, several of my students used the phrase “name dropping” in their papers when analyzing one of President Obama’s speeches. While most people have heard the phrase or can infer its intended meaning, it is still rather ambiguous and problematic. When I hear the phrase “name dropping,” I don’t simply think of people mentioning authoritative figures; I think about people who like to talk about their relationships or interactions with famous or important individuals for no purpose other than to brag. President Obama, however, doesn’t mention names simply to feel important. Instead, he establishes his credibility to his audience by referencing people who are knowledgeable about an issue. Students know why President Obama mentions certain people’s names and professions, but their use of the term “name dropping” may confuse readers who have different associations with the word. In order to avoid these misconceptions, it is best to replace all colloquial terms—which are often ambiguous—with direct and clear language.

Colloquial diction as part of the writing process and final product

The assignments you complete in English composition courses will prompt you to carefully identify your chosen audience and write clearly with that particular audience in mind. The choices and changes you make in your writing indicate that you are becoming a more aware writer. This means that you understand who you are writing for, that you know what is appropriate for your audience, and that you have made a deliberate effort to adjust your writing accordingly. When evaluating your papers and projects, instructors read carefully, looking at your sentence structure, voice, tone, and word choice to determine whether or not you have been a rhetorically aware writer. Yet knowing how to make these rhetorical choices does not occur naturally for most of us. Instead, the writing process can help all writers continually think about their audience by providing them with opportunities to make changes during each stage of the drafting process. During phases of revision is also the best time to identify and replace colloquial diction in order to better clarify writing.

Academic writing often should appeal to a broad audience and always should be as clear and direct as possible. As discussed above, it is best to eliminate any and all uses of colloquial diction in order to achieve clarity in your writing. However, many of students find it difficult to write using academic language when they are simultaneously trying to organize their thoughts and to think critically about the assigned topic. Since we don’t speak or even think in academic language, shifting from conversational language to more formal language can be extremely difficult. This task may seem less daunting if we approach it as a process of change, including several steps rather than a single giant leap. In the initial draft of a paper, using colloquial language is acceptable because it may be easier to understand and organize your thoughts. During successive drafts, you can then revise sentences in order to eliminate colloquialisms, thereby reaching a broader audience. Eventually, with practice, writing clearly and directly will come more naturally to you.